The first time I went to the 1811 jail in Wiscasset, Maine, I was ten years old, and checking off historic places in Maine I wanted to see in a guidebook my mother had bought.
I remember the dark granite cells; the dank smell which permeated the thick walls even though the filth tubs and pallets of straw and unwashed bodies had long since departed. Most of all, I remember the locked wooden rooms above the granite cells that once had held non-violent women, children, the insane, the contagious, and debtors. Together. Memories of that jail stayed with me for years.
When I began writing historical novels for young people set in Wiscasset it wasn’t surprising that scenes in that jail began to appear in my books. First, in Wintering Well, where I included the visit of the doctor assigned to visit prisoners in the jail, and then in Finest Kind, in which my young protagonist gets a job working at the jail. In both books, all the people at the jail — from the jailer and his family to every prisoner named — are the real people who were there at the time I’m writing about.
Today, as a docent at the jail, I’m the guide who takes people through the cells, and the attached jailer’s house (it was strongly recommended that jailers be married, and all but one were) where the jailer’s wife prepared three meals a day not only for her (usually large) family but for however many prisoners (between 4 and 30) were in residence. In 1904 breakfast and supper both consisted of tea, 3 biscuits, and gingerbread. Dinner (the mid-day meal in New England) was soup and two biscuits, except for Sunday, when it was roast meat, potatoes — and — you guessed it — biscuits.
The jail was begun in 1809, and built of granite from a quarry in Edgecomb, across the river, and completed in 1811, just in time for the War of 1812. (Yes, for a short time it held some British sailors. British officers were housed as gentlemen — in the homes of Wiscasset’s finest families.) The walls of the jail are 41 inches thick at the base, and 31 inches thick at the roof.
Heat for the prisoners was provided by one woodstove on each floor of the prison (in the hall)which was replaced by a stove heated by coal in the later part of the 19th century. It can’t have been very warm in winter months inside the granite cells, although granite does hold some heat. The most dangerous prisoners were kept in cells on the first floor, which has the thickest cells, designed for two prisoners, although, as with jails today, if there was a rowdy night at the tavern, more people might be housed there for a night or two.
In the nineteenth century boys were sent to jail for stealing apples or breaking windows at the school; adultery, theft, assault, counterfeiting and arson were relatively common charges for adult criminals. Until the middle of the 1830s, debtors were imprisoned, but most were given “freedom of the town” during the day to earn money, but had to return to the jail at night.
One cell was the “solitary” cell — it has only a slit for light, and a thick door. There was no electricity anywhere in the jail, of course, so none of the cells were very light, but some of them had slightly larger iron barred windows. (Which in a few cells show signs of attempts to cut through them.)
In Finest Kind I based a major scene on something that happened December 3, 1838. A blizzard was blowing up hard. Samuel Holbrook, the jailer at the time, was also the school master, so he and his pregnant wife, parents of three young children, had
fed the prisoners, and Holbrook had left to start the stove at the school, a mile or so away. His wife was alone with her children when students on their way to school the house was on fire. One of them ran to tell Holbrook and get the Wiscasset fire department; the other got Mrs. Holbrook and her children out of the burning house, and then got the key to the jail and, one by one, got all the prisoners out of their cells and tired them to trees in the jail yard. By the time the fire department arrived the house had burned to the ground and the wooden parts of the jail had collapsed — but no one had been hurt.
The prisoners were taken to the poor house to be confined there until the jail could be reconstructed. The new jailer’s house was made of bricks. So if you visit the jail today, the first two floors of cells will be the originals, built in 1811; the third floor and the roof, and the jailer’s house, in 1839.
The jail was used full-time until 1913. After that it was used on an ad hoc basis: for example, the cells held liquor seized during Prohibition — and as a result it’s the only jail in Maine that people tried to break INTO. At different times up until the mid 1950s it was also used to temporarily hold prisoners awaiting trial in the nearby Lincoln County Courthouse.
Today it’s a museum cared for by the Lincoln County Historical Association, open to the public on summer weekends from 12-4, or by appointment. If you visit the coast of Maine, it’s worth a stop. Stepping inside is a step into our past.